Even crazier than trying to operate an existing restaurant with pre-recessionary prices is opening a new one -- especially a big one. Only a big talent would attempt such a thing right now. Shaun Doty is one of our city's bigger talents. He turned Mumbo Jumbo into downtown's best restaurant, serving mainly business and convention people without sacrificing creativity to the usually pedestrian tastes of that market. Now, he has closed that restaurant and opened the very ambitious MidCity Cuisine (1545 Peachtree St., 404-888-8700) in the space vacated by Angelo and Maxie's. Open little more than a week when I visited, the restaurant is surprisingly affordable, good looking and quite tasty. That sounds like an advertisement for a hooker. It's not.
The 8,000-square-foot space has been redone by the Johnson Studio, which has become the premier restaurant design firm in our city. Something in me, because they have become so ubiquitous, wants to dis their work, but, honestly, when they are good, they are very good. The MidCity design is mainly very good.
True, it's too bad about the building in which it's located. It's another one of those generic office buildings that looks like a space-age mausoleum. It kills me that this particular building is located on the site where some of the city's most attractive old apartments once stood. At least there's parking. Too bad it's a valet service that costs $3 and the parking garage is a brief walk away.
The interior here is so simple it's complex. I have to boil it down to geometry. Circles and rectangles. The dining room is wrapped by an L-shaped bar behind which are big plastic translucent circles of various colors. The bottles shine through the circles. Is this use of pure color, as one also sees at Twist, a trend? Here, it's highlighted by the white background, whereas it's black at Twist.
A series of rectangular windows opens on a private dining room, which is opened to everyone when it's not booked and the restaurant is crowded. (Total capacity is about 250.) Mahogany-stained tables are arranged inside a square formed by a banquette, with other tables placed with checkerboard geometry outside the square. There's a big patio. But the very best feature is the remarkably open kitchen, open from floor to ceiling. It's hard to resist walking to it and gawking.
Doty has taken the amazingly ambitious step of opening his restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. Food is served all day long. I've only made one visit, for dinner, and I was very pleased. It can only get better.
Doty, who is active in the Slow Food Movement and has studied cooking all over the world, is in love with seasonal and regional ingredients. His food is usually straightforward, never weird, and relies on ingredients for its impressions rather than the complexity of fusion. You won't find his plates dotted with three oils and scattered with umpteen garnishes or waving herbal antennae in your face.
The menu is divided into hors d'oeuvres (and thank you so much for not calling them tapas), appetizers, pastas and entrees. There are three three-course chef's menus that include a bargain-price $20 for roasted chicken, $25 for salmon en cocotte and $50 for grilled beef tenderloin. Don't get excited. The $50 menu feeds two. I hope you're getting the point. These are very good prices for the quality of food.
Wayne and I skipped the menu bargains, wanting to graze. I started with a bread salad hors d'oeuvre ($5) -- cubes of bread lightly anointed in vinaigrette with roasted peppers, some lettuces and arugula, then topped with serrano ham sliced from a ham at the end of the bar. It made me weep for Spain. Wayne ordered, from the appetizer menu, a Greek-inspired octopus salad ($8). It was plenty for two. It was tender octopus with boiled potatoes, Greek olives, arugula and diced tomatoes. The arugula and capers added different notes of slight bitterness to the dish. I like that.
We then split a pasta dish -- fettucini with chicken livers ($10). Our server was concerned. "I need to warn you that you are ordering a lot of food," she told us. "These portions aren't small." We assured her that we had spilled more on our baby bibs than she'd eaten in her entire life and to bring it on.
The pasta dish was the only thing I sampled that could use some improvement. True, the pasta was perfectly cooked. And the livers were awesome -- slightly crispy on the outside. But the pasta tasted flat unless you had some of the livers in your mouth. This, of course, is the danger of Doty's style. By depending on his primary ingredients for a dish's impression, he risks flavor if the ingredients don't scintillate on their own. Most of the time he succeeds.
Wayne's entree -- turbot ($16) -- was my favorite dish. But who can resist a creamy fish daubed in browned butter? It's served over spinach with roasted fingerling potatoes on the side.
My own entree was free-range chicken with sweetbreads, mushrooms and potato gnocchi ($16). The sweetbreads -- OK, less than I'd like -- were stuffed into the boned chicken, which was remarkably moist. The mushrooms and gnocchi were served as a saute in a rich sauce.
For dessert, we split one of my faves from Mumbo Jumbo -- the bruschetta topped with fruits, Nutella and vanilla ice cream ($5).
I am impressed -- especially that Doty is offering this quality of food at these prices. There's not a single entree that even costs $20. Let me hear your own reports.
Aloha (550 Piedmont Ave., 404-810-9128) has opened next to the Blue Trout, across from the Publix in Midtown. Calling itself an Asian bistro and sushi bar, its soup-to-nuts menu is mainly Chinese, though there are a few Thai and Malaysian dishes, including a soft-shell crab served with penang curry that includes shrimp ($16.95).
I've had two meals. A take-out lunch of the plain penang curry with chicken ($6.25) was good, though I didn't care for its huge serving of fried rice. You can order it with steamed rice, as it turns out. I've also eaten a meal at the small sushi bar. A salmon skin roll ($5.50) was perfect. It's hard to get a roll with crispy skin in our city and the chef, Henry, told me he forgoes the usual toasting for deep-frying. It works.
The Aloha roll ($9.95) featured tuna and salmon rolled in nori, then flash-fried tempura-style, then rolled in rice, served under Japanese mayo blended with some hot chili sauce. For the money, frankly, I think you're better off making other selections. I preferred, for example, my dynamite roll ($5.75) of salmon and red snapper with a dash of hot chili sauce.
Owners CK and his wife Ling are a delightful couple who have opened Aloha following a few years in Peachtree City and Oklahoma before that. Their menu is seriously huge and, of the Chinese dishes, CK told me his personal favorite is the General Tso's chicken.
If you are in the area, they deliver for free. Now who else is going to deliver sushi to your house at 10:30 p.m.?
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at email@example.com.